Germany prepares for war in the east

In the city since early morning there has been a general panic. Germans are stopping all men, Aryans and Jews, and are sending them for labor at the airfields. During all of this beatings are a normal part of German conduct. From the window I observed them. With special satisfaction the Germans beat people who were well dressed and looked like white collar workers.

Men in a forced labour gang from the ghetto working outside Warsaw, May 1941.

In Nazi occupied eastern Poland it was an open secret that preparations were being made for war. Hitler was to personally re-assure Stalin that he was moving troops there to keep them away from British bombers. But airfields were also being built, ready to receive the air fleets that would soon be diverted away from the attack on Britain. Zygmunt Klukowski was a Polish doctor whose diary records life under the occupation:

May 6

In the city since early morning there has been a general panic. Germans are stopping all men, Aryans and Jews, and are sending them for labor at the airfields. During all of this beatings are a normal part of German conduct. From the window I observed them. With special satisfaction the Germans beat people who were well dressed and looked like white collar workers.

All workers are under constant surveillance. One soldier with a rifle looks after ten workers. The work now starts at 6 a.m. and ends at dusk. The hardest work is in the flooded areas where the workers stand knee-deep in water. Some people who signed in as sick were examined by a young German physician. Only a few were dismissed.

Now the Germans have organized a civil defense. Dr. Likowski was put in charge. Today the commandant of gendarmerie stopped by to inspect the hospital cellars. He told me that he is requesting the installation of electrical power and telephones in the cellars, for use in case of air raids. Everyone talks openly about the upcoming war.

See Klukowski: Diary from the Years of Occupation

Hitler inspects the Bismarck

He considered it an advantage that in the Bismaick, which was more powerful than the Scharnhorst class, he would no longer be forced to avoid well protected convoys. This, however, did not solve his most difficult problem: getting his force out into the Atlantic without being spotted by the enemy.

Hitler on an inspection tour of the Bismarck, 5th May 1941, with Captain Lindemann on his right and Admiral Lutjens behind.

The latest German battleship, the Bismarck, commissioned in August 1940, had completed her sea trials and was now ready for her first operational voyage. On the 5th May 1941 Hitler visited the ship and discussed the plans for a raid against convoys in the Atlantic. Burkhard Von Mullenheim-Rechberg, was a gunnery officer on board the Bismarck:

Hitler, looking somewhat pale, and Keitel, followed by Lutjens and Lindemann, reviewed the crew. The party then inspected some of the ship’s equipment, which gave the responsible officers a chance to brief the “Fuhrer” in their own areas.

Hitler remained for an especially long time in the after gunnery computer space, where an extremely capable gunfire-plotting officer, Oberleutnant zur See Friedrich Cardinal, explained how the various intricate looking devices controlled gunfire. Keitel as well as Hitler seemed to be much impressed by Cardinal’s presentation, but neither asked any questions.

After touring the ship, Hitler, Lutjens, and a small group adjourned to the admiral’s quarters. There, Lutjens told of his experiences in action against British commerce in the Atlantic with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, expressed optimism about an operation of this type with the Bismarck, and explained his immediate intentions.

He considered it an advantage that in the Bismarck, which was more powerful than the Scharnhorst class, he would no longer be forced to avoid well protected convoys. This, however, did not solve his most difficult problem: getting his force out into the Atlantic without being spotted by the enemy.

When Hitler suggested that, apart from anything else, the numerical superiority of the British fleet presented a great risk, Lutjens pointed to the Bismarck’s superiority over any single British capital ship. Her hitting and staying power were so great that he had no apprehension on that score. After a pause, he added that breaking out to the high seas would not by any means be the end of our worries. Quite clearly, torpedo planes from British aircraft carriers were a great danger that he would have to reckon with all the time he was in the Atlantic.

See The Battleship “Bismarck”: A Survivor’s Story

Starvation on Warsaw’s streets

There was scarcely a night when you didn’t hear the groans of people dying on the street. The typhus spread. Doctors made superhuman efforts to control the disease: daily rounds of assigned buildings, lectures maintaining hygiene, attempts to obtain soap rations and disinfectants, and long hard hours in the hospital. But the epidemic grew, owing to the conditions inside the ghetto.

Starvation meant that the dead and dying were a common sight on the streets of the ghetto by May 1941.

Hunger grew increasingly severe. More and more patients complained to their doctors of swelling due to hunger, and more and more corpses lay on the ghetto streets. Pale, emaciated children with huge, horribly hungry eyes sobbed and moaned and asked for bread. Living skeletons covered in rags became an increasingly common sight.

There was scarcely a night when you didn’t hear the groans of people dying on the street. The typhus spread. Doctors made superhuman efforts to control the disease: daily rounds of assigned buildings, lectures maintaining hygiene, attempts to obtain soap rations and disinfectants, and long hard hours in the hospital. But the epidemic grew, owing to the conditions inside the ghetto.

Hundreds of dirty, starving Jews who had been declared unfit for work in the labor camps were relocated in Warsaw, and even more people were resettled from the provinces. Typhus decimated the population – in private homes, public shelters, children’s boardinghouses, and in the punkty.

From the anonymous diary of a woman living in the ghetto in 1941, collected in Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto

 

Liverpool’s ‘May Blitz’

A lot of children were evacuated to the countryside, but my mother would not let me go and decided to move back to Nelson. She went working in the mill weaving. She would work there from early morning until teatime, then rush home and after tea go back to work on munitions until 10 pm.

The devastation in Liverpool docks after the ammunition ship 'Malakand' blew up after catching fire on the night of 3rd May 1941.

Merseyside and Liverpool were bombed every night of the first week of May with over 1750 people being killed. The worst single night was the 3rd/4th when an estimated 850 people were killed. The ammunition ship Malakand, being loaded with 1,000 tons of munitions caught the flames from nearby burning warehouses. Desperate attempts were made to control the fire but she blew up hours after the ‘All Clear’ was sounded on the 4th, killing four fire fighters. The fire continued for another 72 hours.

Ena Barker was nine years old when she lived through the Liverpool Blitz:

I remember going to school each morning carrying my gas mask on my back at all times, in case the Germans dropped gas onto us. We had to get home early and have our tea, as the sirens would sound most nights around 6 o’clock, then planes would come. We would go down into the cellar or under the stairs; we even went under the table sometimes. Mother didn’t like going into the air raid shelter as she always said she had a bad feeling about them.

One morning I went to school and when I got there it was just a pile of rubble. You never knew just what you would find after a raid, sometimes there were no houses left, just piles of stones and rubbish.

Our school was bombed and I remember we were not allowed to go home; we had to sit in what had been the school yard with our pencils and paper, until we were found another school to go to.

We had to keep moving houses as we kept getting bombed. I remember one night Lewis’s store being hit and watching from the door of our house as firemen climbed up long ladders trying to put out the enormous flames. One night we had a lucky escape when a shelter near us was bombed and everyone inside it was killed.

Each night in Liverpool the searchlights would light up the sky searching for the German bombers. There were silver coloured barrage balloons in front of King George’s Hall, huge on the ground, but when they let the ropes go and they went up into the sky they looked very small.

A lot of children were evacuated to the countryside, but my mother would not let me go and decided to move back to Nelson. She went working in the mill weaving. She would work there from early morning until teatime, then rush home and after tea go back to work on munitions until 10 pm.

BBC People’s war

For many more pictures see Liverpool Blitz 70

Merseyside.

The cumulative effect of seven successive nights’ bombing has not been fully assessed, but it is known that extensive damage has been done to docks, railways, all utility services, and to private property.

Heavy salvage operations are entailed by ships sunk in the docks, and in some cases dock gates are unusable owing to lack of electric power.

The railway system to the docks was badly affected by actual damage and by unexploded bombs, and sections of the Dockyard Overhead Railways were destroyed. Many roads near the docks were blocked by craters or debris and in Bootle two important bridges were smashed.

Considerable damage by fire was done to dockyard buildings and the offices of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board were destroyed.

From the Home Security Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/23

American Lease And Lend food being eaten in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, Uk, 1941 Three children eat American cheese sandwiches at an emergency feeding centre in Liverpool. Behind them, a man can be seen cooking at a Soyer boiler or field cooker.
American Lease And Lend food being eaten in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, Uk, 1941
Three children eat American cheese sandwiches at an emergency feeding centre in Liverpool. Behind them, a man can be seen cooking at a Soyer boiler or field cooker.
The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, making a speech (in warehouse setting) to merchant ships' crews and dockers at Liverpool, in which he thanked his listeners for their part in helping win the Battle of the Atlantic. One of the Prime Minister's public engagements during his visit to Manchester and Merseyside between 25 and 26 April 1941.
The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, making a speech (in warehouse setting) to merchant ships’ crews and dockers at Liverpool, in which he thanked his listeners for their part in helping win the Battle of the Atlantic. One of the Prime Minister’s public engagements during his visit to Manchester and Merseyside between 25 and 26 April 1941.
Mrs Cripps, daughter-in-law of Mr Leonard Cripps, serves American baked ham to feed dockyard workers in a marquee being used as an emergency feeding centre on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Mrs Cripps, daughter-in-law of Mr Leonard Cripps, serves American baked ham to feed dockyard workers in a marquee being used as an emergency feeding centre on the outskirts of Liverpool.
A demolition worker in Liverpool sucks a raw American egg as he rests on a wheelbarrow next to a smouldering fire.
A demolition worker in Liverpool sucks a raw American egg as he rests on a wheelbarrow next to a smouldering fire.
Vertical aerial view from 1,800 feet of the waterfront from the Pier Head to the Albert Dock, and of the city east to Derby Square, showing the extensive bomb damage to the commercial centre. The shell of the burnt out customs shed is visible left centre.
Vertical aerial view from 1,800 feet of the waterfront from the Pier Head to the Albert Dock, and of the city east to Derby Square, showing the extensive bomb damage to the commercial centre. The shell of the burnt out customs shed is visible left centre.

War breaks out in Iraq

On the 2nd May, at 0200 hours, the Royal Air Force Cantonment at Habbaniya was invested by Iraqi troops and hostilities broke out. The aerodrome and emergency landing ground were shelled, and 22 out of 29 serviceable aircraft were damaged. Our casualties were over 40, including four pilots andi two observers. Iraqi aircraft unsuccessfully bombed and machine-gunned the camp.

RAF Fordson Armoured Cars in Iraq, May 1941

Following Iraqi independence in 1932 Britain enjoyed good relations with the Hashemite monarchy. Under the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty Britain maintained substantial RAF bases in the country. These were staging posts on the route to India but also provided some security to British petroleum interests in the country.

A coup d’etat at the beginning of April brought the anti-British Rashid Ali to power. There were very few troops available in the region that might bolster the RAF, although arrangements were made to bring in re-inforcements from India. When Rashid Ali’s forces attacked the RAF base at Habbaniya there was only a small force of RAF armoured cars available for land operations:

Iraq

On the 2nd May, at 0200 hours, the Royal Air Force Cantonment at Habbaniya was invested by Iraqi troops and hostilities broke out. The aerodrome and emergency landing ground were shelled, and 22 out of 29 serviceable aircraft were damaged. Our casualties were over 40, including four pilots andi two observers. Iraqi aircraft unsuccessfully bombed and machine-gunned the camp.

On the same day, all available aircraft attacked the investing forces, and No. 4 Flying Training School carried out 400 sorties on this and the three subsequent days, dropping approximately thirty tons of bombs. Aided by extra guns, the enemy shelling continued desultorily during this period, but without making it impossible for aircraft to use the landing-grounds, although a further number were destroyed and damaged on the ground. Wellingtons from Shaibah bombed enemy troops and positions and attacked their aircraft at Raschid aerodrome.

Blenheims did valuable reconnaissance of the pipe-line around Rutbah, where a large oil fire was observed, and also of the towns of Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Sulman Pak. On the 6th May, reconnaissance showed that the enemy positions near Habbaniya had been abandoned.

During the operations, the greater part of the Iraqi Air Force was put out of action. We lost seven aircraft in the air and seven on the ground. It is probable that the Iraqis expected air assistance from the Germans. Pilots returning to Habbaniya from Hit during the night of the 5th/6th May reported that fires were lighted at their approach and all along their route. Others were lighted round Habbaniya which had the appearance of guiding marks. An Arab questioned at Hit thought that our aircraft were German.

From the Air Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/23

Tobruk defences tested

Shells exploding close at hand included the angry buzzing of shrapnel fragments. The mind can hardly grasp the amount of ‘lead’ that has been scattered over the desert by exploding shrapnel; the surface of the ground is positively carpeted with jagged, ugly, twisted fragments; sometimes eight inches long. It says a lot for defensive methods that any troops survive.

A German Panzer III tank on the move in the desert, April - May 1941

Geoffrey Nowland was with the Australian 9th Division, under siege in Tobruk:

1st May 1941

Last night four of us and a corporal spent a night of Hell. Three hundred yards into No-Man’s-Land on a ‘listening post’, we crouched in our shallow rock shelter while Gerry sent tons of high explosive shells from tanks and guns, over our heads at the artillery behind our post. Sometimes a few would land near us. During the night we hastily retreated in the face of machine gun fire but we went out again after a stiff swig of rum.

Every second night I am among the four who go out a few hundred yards to spend the night at a ‘listening post’. Invariably Gerry keeps us both awake all night. Our role is deliberately negative; we are not encouraged to fire back at the enemy because this would give our positions away. We are pelted with all manner of shells and high velocity anti-tank bullets. Concrete dug-outs give us some measure of protection.

Most of the projectiles whistle over our heads and the explosions are ear splitting, echoing off the rocks and wire entanglements. Occasionally a few fall short uncomfortably near us and Gerry is fond of using an anti-aircraft gun to spray the ground with shrapnel, directing the shell not skywards but just above the ground.

Last night in the clear air with a slight breeze, the commands of Gerry’s gun crews were clearly audible. I could hear the officer’s directions and then louder the command to fire, which was almost simultaneously followed by the muzzle flash and later the report, whistling shell and flash and detonation of the striking projectile.

Shells exploding close at hand included the angry buzzing of shrapnel fragments. The mind can hardly grasp the amount of ‘lead’ that has been scattered over the desert by exploding shrapnel; the surface of the ground is positively carpeted with jagged, ugly, twisted fragments; sometimes eight inches long. It says a lot for defensive methods that any troops survive.

See Kenneth Rankin, Editor Lest We Forget : Fifty Years On

Tobruk.

On the night of the 30th April / 1st May the enemy attacked and penetrated our defences on the south-west perimeter, and on the morning of the 1st May 30 tanks attacked towards Pilastrino.

Our forward line of defended localities on a 5,000-yard front was captured, and approximately 60 enemy tanks avoided gun positions and concentrated on our infantry forward posts. Our tanks counter-attacked and a portion of the enemy withdrew after losing 11 tanks. Enemy aircraft made numerous dive-bombing attacks on our troops and artillery positions.

On the evening of the 1st May, owing to the enemy tank action, a counter-attack did not succeed in restoring the whole of our forward line of defended localities. On the morning of the 2nd May 30 enemy medium tanks, followed by two companies of infantry, advanced against our new line, but were stopped by artillery fire.

A further counter-attack by our troops on the night of the 3rd / 4th May was not successful owing to the bold use by the enemy of tanks, machine guns and flame-throwers. Severe casualties are, however, believed to have been inflicted upon the enemy.

From the Military Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/18

Hitler’s Passport faked

This was a demonstration of the skills of the forgery section of the Special Operations Executive who were responsible for running agents in occupied Europe. They were to develop huge expertise in the creation of a wide range of fake documentation used for personal identification.

An unusual German passport from April 1941. The red 'J' represented 'Jew' and often proved to be a death warrant when stamped on a genuine passport.

A passport signed by Adolf Hitler on 30th April 1941. This was a demonstration of the skills of the forgery section of the Special Operations Executive who were responsible for running agents in occupied Europe. They were to develop huge expertise in the creation of a wide range of fake documentation used for personal identification. After the war Gestapo documents were found that described the quality of forged documents discovered on captured agents as ‘excellent’.

The details page of the passport where Hitler's distinguishing feature is described as a 'small moustache'.

Plymouth bombed yet again

It is natural that after five such raids the people should be somewhat shaken, but the movement of population from the city is regarded as reasonably well in hand, and the problem is being largely solved by the provision of rail tickets for would-be evacuees, and by the evacuation of children from specified areas.

A Naval bomb disposal unit deals with an unexploded bomb during the Plymouth blitz.

Plymouth was just one of the major port cities that suffered repeat visits from the Luftwaffe during March and April. Despite attempts to lure the bombers to target fires in the open country outside the city, it was hit very badly again:

On the 29th/30th April Plymouth and Devonport were again attacked, and, although the raid was on a larger scale than any of its predecessors, it began with inaccurate, bombing in open country North of the city, where wood-fires at Mount Edgcumbe were heavily bombed. It was comparatively late in the raid before the enemy found his targets, and the attack did not therefore seem so heavy as some of its predecessors.

The raid lasted nearly four hours, and, though its effects cannot yet be fully assessed, it is clear that, after all that the city and its environs have lately been through, this raid struck a heavy blow. The main weight of attack was felt at Keyham and Milehouse, between Plymouth and Devonport.

High explosives seem to have predominated over incendiary attack, and only 20 fires were reported. Fires were started in Milehouse, at a Devonport gasholder and once again at the Tor Point oil cisterns. In addition to areas of military importance, the city’s civilian life seems again to have suffered severely, and a shopping centre at Mutley, rendered more important by the destruction done elsewhere in earlier raids, was damaged in this one. Residential districts suffered severely, the worst damage of this kind being reported from the Beacon Park and Hartley areas. The fires were all brought under control during the morning. Casualties cannot yet be accurately estimated.

Plymouth has rallied with vigour from all attacks. It is natural that after five such raids the people should be somewhat shaken, but the movement of population from the city is regarded as reasonably well in hand, and the problem is being largely solved by the provision of rail tickets for would-be evacuees, and by the evacuation of children from specified areas.

From the Home Security Report for the week.

Joyse Prowse was 14 at the time:

My mother said to me after the worst night, ‘Come on, we’ll walk to town to see what damage they’ve done,’ so we walked to the end of Ebrington Street and stood at ‘Burton’s Corner’ and saw nothing but smouldering rubble, hundreds of fireman and hoses. They said, ‘You can’t go any further.’ We didn’t intend to anyway, we just stood, Mother crying her eyes out. I’d never seen mother cry before. She was heart broken.

Read the whole story at BBC People’s War

Last ditch stand at Kalamata

When order to retreat to cover was given Sergeant Hinton shouted, ‘To Hell with this who will come with me’, and ran to within several yards of the nearest guns. The guns fired, missing him, and he hurled two grenades which completely wiped out the crews. He then came on with bayonet …

Greek and British prisoners of war are marched off by the Germans, Greece, April 1941.

The short British campaign to save Greece from the German invasion was now coming to an ignominious end.

British and New Zealand troops in Greece were now making their way to the coast to seek evacuation by the Royal Navy. Many men were got away but when the Germans caught up with them a fierce fight ensued.

Sergeant John Hinton in 1941. A tough New Zealander who had run away from home aged 12 and later joined a Norwegian whaling ship working the southern ocean before he was reconciled with his family.

It was during this action that New Zealander Jack Hinton won the VC. The citation glosses over the fact that Hinton’s action were in open defiance of direct orders to prepare to surrender:

On the night of 28/29 April 1941 during fighting in Greece a column of German armoured forces entered Kalamata. This column, which contained several armoured cars, some 2-inch guns and 3-inch mortars and two 6-inch guns, rapidly converged on a large force of British and New Zealand troops awaiting embarkation on the beach.

When an order to retreat to cover was given Sergeant Hinton shouted, ‘To Hell with this, who will come with me’, and ran to within several yards of the nearest guns. The guns fired, missing him, and he hurled two grenades which completely wiped out the crews. He then came on with bayonet followed by a crowd of New Zealanders. German troops abandoned the first 6-inch gun and retreated into two houses. Sergeant Hinton smashed the window and then the door of the first house and dealt with the garrison with bayonet. He repeated the performance in the second house and, as a result until overwhelming German forces arrived, the New Zealander held the guns. Sergeant Hinton then fell with a bullet wound through the lower abdomen and was taken prisoner.

Hinton was to spend the rest of the war as a POW despite making numerous escape attempts – for which he would later receive a ‘mention in despatches’. In April 1945, as the war was ending, he was was liberated from his POW camp by US troops. He then ‘joined’ the US 44th Infantry Division by borrowing an American uniform and assisted front line units for a brief period before being discovered by senior officers, whereupon he was sent back to England. He received his VC from the King before returning to New Zealand.

Bill Flint, who was with the 18th Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was involved with this fighting. He describes how the final surrender came about the following morning:

They were a sandbag sort of wall – a low wall, and they were sheltering behind them, but they were made of filled sandbags. I saw one bloke – I think he was ASC [Army Service Corps] or something – he’d had no training in bayonet, and he stuck his bayonet at a – obviously German who was behind a sanger – but he didn’t know how to pull it out. There’s a knack in it – you’ve got to jerk it and put your foot in. It was desperate. We realised we had to beat these Germans before we could get away. It ended up we all sorted – we had about 70 German prisoners right at the wharf edge, and we fully expected to still go – get out – and then a destroyer just zoomed past. It sort of semi-circled and turned and went away and loud-hailed us: ‘Sorry boys, it’s late. We’ve got to go.’

Not long after that we got – word circulated- word of mouth – that the brigadier, whoever he was, a Pommie, I think, had unconditionally surrendered to the Germans, who had offered him annihilation bombing if he didn’t – didn’t surrender immediately and that was something like 7:30 in the morning. We were to consider ourselves prisoners at 7:30 and in no time flat, the German tanks came in and went right round us in a circle and put swastika flags on top of their tanks and their bombers flew in at just that time and when they saw the flags, they veered off and went away but they were just going to start bombing.

NZ History has his full story.

Himmler visits Mauthausen

The 12 hour days of hard physical labour on a meagre diet were lethal for many of the inmates. But there were other more direct methods of killing. The Stairs of death involved long lines of prisoners carrying 50kg granite blocks up the stairs. Those who stumbled would fall on the prisoners following them, creating a domino effect that killed or injured dozens.

Himmler talking to SS Guards in Mauthausen concentration camp, 27th April 1941

In the Spring of 1941 Heinrich Himmler was busy planning the expansion of the concentration camp system in preparation for the invasion of Russia. On 27th April he visited Mauthausen, one of the first of the labour camps to be established in Austria. Mauthausen had originally been a labour camp for opponents of the Nazi regime but became one of the first ‘no return’ camps after the invasion of Poland.

At this time it was being used for the ‘extermination through labour’ of Polish intelligentsia – a broad term for the Nazi’s that included included almost anyone reasonably well educated, including teachers, but also members of organisations like the boy scouts.

Himmler ascends the 'Stairs of Death' during his visit.

The 12 hour days of hard physical labour on a meagre diet were lethal for many of the inmates. But there were other more direct methods of killing. The ‘Stairs of Death’ involved long lines of prisoners carrying 50kg granite blocks up the stairs. Those who stumbled would fall on the prisoners following them, creating a domino effect that killed or injured dozens.

A later photograph of prisoners ascending the 'Stairs of Death' whilst carrying large stone blocks.